Guantanamo probe stirs wider security concerns
Arrests of base workers lead to reexamination of Islamic ties in military bases and prisons.
WASHINGTON — The investigation into security breaches at the US military's Guantanamo Bay prison has not yet turned up evidence of a coordinated Al Qaeda penetration of the heavily guarded Cuban camp.
One of the three people recently arrested for alleged suspicious actions at Guantanamo - Muslim chaplain Capt. James Yee - hasn't even been officially accused of espionage. The Defense Department has instead charged him with two counts of misuse of classified material.
Still, there's little doubt that the detention of Captain Yee and two Arabic translators has shocked Washington into an intensive reexamination of Islamic influence inside civilian and military prisons, and the military itself. One early conclusion: The government cut corners in its rush to hire speakers of Arabic following Sept. 11, 2001.
"I think the results of that are as we are seeing here," said Charles Abell, a Defense Department personnel official, at a Senate hearing last week. "We found a couple who were not as trustworthy as we had hoped initially."
The Guantanamo Bay base seemed an ideal place to take Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners in the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan. Prisoners there would be isolated both physically and culturally, US officials thought, and thus more prone to talk. In addition, the base has been heavily secured over the years, due in part to its unique status as an American toehold on an island ruled by US nemesis Fidel Castro. Escape seemed unlikely.
Escape is still unlikely, but in general the base no longer seems iron-plate locked. The weak point was internal: Those who work with prisoners had been allowed to come and go through prison gates into the larger base without extensive scrutiny. US personnel had to have a security clearance to be at Guantanamo at all, went the thinking. Why bother to check whether such presumably loyal military and contract workers were, in essence, passing prisoner notes?
Yet some were. In a quick burst this fall the military announced the arrests of Yee, who counseled Guantanamo prisoners, and two camp translators: Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad al-Halabi, and contract employee Ahmed Fathy Mehalba.
The proximity of the arrest announcements led some observers to wonder if investigators had stumbled upon an Al Qaeda attempt to organize a cell at the camp. Details of the cases so far seem to indicate something else: three people who were allegedly compromising base security independently, and with varying degrees of seriousness.
Take the case of Yee, who was arrested at Jacksonville Naval Air Station, Fla., on Sept. 10. Pentagon officials have said that he was carrying personal information about the prisoners he counseled during a 10-month stay at Guantanamo, as well as a map of the base. They've hinted that they're curious as to whether he's passed this information to a foreign power.
But on Oct. 10, Yee was charged only with disobeying orders by taking classified material to his home, and wrongfully transporting classified material without proper security containers or covers. Officials say they reserve the right to bring further charges later, following a more thorough investigation.
The charges are "nothing compared to what [initial reports] made you think it was," says a native Arab speaker who works in military intelligence.
Furthermore, it wouldn't be a surprise if Yee had developed mixed feelings about the treatment of prisoners, say some. Chaplains aren't interrogators, or guards.
"There's sympathy, then there's treasonous affiliation, but if he didn't develop some kind of sympathy [for prisoners] he shouldn't be a chaplain," says Ingrid Mattson, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, who trains Muslim chaplains at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
But whatever happens to Yee, the military's Muslim chaplain program now faces a wide-ranging review.
The two Islamic organizations that have made referrals and religious certifications for the military's chaplain program - the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences, and the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs - have been accused of ties to radical groups. The co-founder of the latter, for instance, Abdurahman Alamoudi, was arrested and charged with an illegal relationship with Libya earlier this month.
"As a result of the last several months of activities, we are looking around to see if there are organizations that might provide us Muslim chaplains other than the two that currently provide [them]," Abell, the Defense Department's principal deputy undersecretary for personnel and readiness, told the Senate last week.
Meanwhile, the cases against the two ex-Guantanamo translators involve allegations of serious espionage.
The list of charges preferred against Senior Airman al-Halabi is impressive, for instance - at least in length and breadth. He is accused of taking illegal photos of camp facilities in Guantanamo Bay, and of wrongfully communicating with detainees, according to court documents.
The documents allege that when he was arrested at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station, al-Halabi was attempting to deliver notes from prisoners, "writings related to the national defense," to a citizen of a foreign government by carrying them en route to Syria. He allegedly e-mailed sensitive information overseas as well, and even, according to court papers, conducted "unauthorized communications with detainees by furnishing and delivering unauthorized food, to wit: baklava pastries."
Contract translator Mehalba, for his part, has not been accused of illegal baklava delivery. But on Oct. 16 a federal judge found probable cause that he had lied to investigators after he was found carrying classified documents upon his arrival at Logan International Airport in Boston after visiting his native Egypt.
An affidavit from an FBI agent who participated in Mehalba's initial interrogation describes a scene in which the suspect almost breezily waives his Miranda rights and allows investigators to scan his compact discs, all the while denying that they contained secret information.
Unbeknownst to Mehalba, he had apparently been under surveillance for some time. In 2001, FBI agents had interviewed a former girlfriend of his, and learned that he had an uncle who was an intelligence officer for the Egyptian Army.
The woman in question, an Army specialist named Deborah M. Gephart, had proferred this tidbit in part because she herself was in big trouble. A student at the Army's counterintelligence school at the time, she had been arrested for vehicle theft. A search of her quarters revealed a stolen laptop and classified counterintelligence training material.
While detained at Logan Airport, Mehalba at first denied knowing Gephart. He discussed his family only reluctantly.
"I asked about his uncle and whether he was in the [Egyptian] military," said FBI Special Agent John F. Van Kleef, according to the affidavit. "Mehalba said he was. I asked what he did. Mehalba mumbled 'MI', an acronym for military intelligence."
Shortly thereafter Mehalba asked if he needed a lawyer, and questioning ceased.
Should these suspects have set off alarms before they set foot on Cuban soil? The Department of Defense doesn't say otherwise. In particular, there's such a demand for Arabic translators in the post-Sept. 11 federal government that Mehalba and al-Halabi may not have received enough scrutiny prior to their postings.
For decades the military focused on developing Russian linguists to help in the Cold War, says Kevin Hendzel, spokesman for the American Translators Association, the largest professional group for US translators. Now, with the sudden onset of the war on terrorism, the focus has shifted to Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Pashto, and other languages.
"I don't mean to suggest that the Department of Defense is radically less careful, but they've got a really tough mission to do," Mr. Hendzel says. "They're grabbing warm bodies pretty fast."
Today the Pentagon is implementing a number of new efforts to develop needed language skills, according to US officials. Among them: a new military reserve program for linguists.
"We hope never to be caught in this position again," Abell of the Pentagon told the Senate last week.